• Quins’ thrilling defeat of Leicester lifts hopes in South Africa
• Timely boost for England’s head coach Stuart Lancaster
For Englishmen the 2011-12 season has been one of huge mood swings. It has been a tale of redemption, too, from the low of the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand to the high generated by Harlequins’ bravura display in a memorable Premiership final. Chris Robshaw, England’s captain, will jet off to South Africa this week feeling anything is possible if his squad can adapt Quins’ dashing method to the international stage.
Normally it would be fanciful to expect one club team to supply the blueprint for the national side but Quins, in winning their first league title, proved that English players and smart, deft, attacking rugby are not mutually exclusive even on the grandest occasions. When the final whistle blew on Saturday, Quins had 14 English-qualified players on the field, a timely pre‑tour boost for the watching England head coach, Stuart Lancaster.
It just shows that out of darkness can cometh light for those with sufficient ambition. The biggest tribute you can pay Quins is that they moved the ball around as sweetly and effectively as an outstanding Leinster team did in the Heineken Cup final a week earlier. In doing so, they also relegated the Bloodgate saga of three years ago to footnote status and allowed individuals such as Tom Williams and Danny Care to vanquish all kinds of demons.
All sorts of other people deserve credit – Quins’ overnight success has been seven years in the making since their relegation from the Premiership in 2005 – but Care’s fall and rise neatly mirrors that of a club who have also had to absorb a number of painful lessons. The scrum‑half’s off‑field conduct saw him excluded from England’s Six Nations squad but, like Quins, he has emerged the stronger for it.
Having given up alcohol and refocused on his game, he unsettled Leicester from start to finish and played sufficiently well to demand a starting place in England’s team for the first Test against the Springboks in Durban on Saturday week.
“There was obviously a time this season when I wasn’t enjoying my rugby at all. The last few months have been completely different and to win this is a dream come true. It’s the best feeling I’ve ever had as a rugby player. We believed we were the best team in the Premiership and I think we showed it.”
It did no harm that several key Leicester men, not least Thomas Waldrom at No8, had games to forget. Manu Tuilagi looked jumpy and Julian Salvi did not seem fully fit. Quins also looked happier in temperatures nudging 90F (32C), having spent four days in Abu Dhabi before the final.
Conor O’Shea, as director of rugby, deserves a great deal of the credit, having mastered the difficult juggling act of topping the regular season table while keeping something in reserve for the play‑offs. Leicester, who have now lost six of their last nine Twickenham finals, can be relied on to come back strong but, on the day, were beaten by a visibly sharper unit.
Players looping ceaselessly around a midfield pivot, constantly looking for offloads and mismatches, with Robshaw and the excellent Joe Marler offering more direct ball-carrying options. The main difference with last season, when Quins won the Amlin Challenge Cup but fell short domestically, has been their collective decision-making and discipline. “Now people understand that we don’t have to give the miracle ball all the time,” said Nick Easter, swift to applaud O’Shea and his coaching team. “Even in the dark moments he’s backed the way we play.”
The speed and tempo of Quins’ recycled ruck ball created their first try by Williams after 10 minutes and the sin-binning of Waldrom shortly before half-time made life harder still for the Tigers, even after a lucky ricochet at a lineout resulted in a breakaway score for Steve Mafi. Nick Evans landed three penalty goals in Waldrom’s absence and Robshaw’s unstoppable angled surge for his 56th‑minute try helped Quins to a 30-13 lead with 13 minutes left.
To the Tigers’ credit they responded with a try by Anthony Allen and a George Ford penalty but a crooked lineout throw at a critical juncture scuppered their late rally. “The determination and self-belief we have at this club is brilliant,” Care said. “This is hopefully the first of many trophies to come. I think we’ve proved we’re a special team but we want to go on from this to bigger and better things.”
There is every chance if this young side keep improving. The squad contain only three players over the age of 30 and have triumphantly lanced the myth of Leicester invincibility. “If you want to announce yourself on the English stage you need to beat the likes of Leicester,” said Ugo Monye, one of Quins’ faithful stalwarts. “They’re the ultimate challenge.”
Times, though, are changing. Robshaw’s champions fully deserved their title and England should seek to follow their example.
Harlequins Brown; Williams, Lowe, Turner-Hall, Monye; Evans (Clegg, 77), Care; Marler, Gray, Johnston, Kohn, Robson, Fa’asavalu (Guest, 73), Robshaw (capt), Easter.
Tries Williams, Robshaw Con Evans Pens Evans 6.
Leicester Murphy (capt); Agulla (Hamilton, 74), M Tuilagi, Allen, A Tuilagi; Ford (Twelvetrees 74), B Youngs; Ayerza (Mulipola, 72), Chuter (T Youngs, 62), Cole (Castrogiovanni, 56) Skivington (Kitchener, 74), Parling, Mafi, Salvi, Waldrom.
Tries Mafi, Allen Cons Ford 2 Pens Ford 2.
Sin-bin Waldrom 39.
Referee Wayne Barnes (RFU). Attendance 81,779.